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My General is Better Than Your General
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One of the constant, low-grade irritations I've felt for the last couple of years has been...generals. Military generals, I mean. And Admirals, too, I guess, though none immediately come to mind.

Actually, it's not the generals, per se that irritate me. It has been how both the pro-and anti-Iraq war people tend to trot out generals, in order to make what are essentially arguments from authority. The Democrats would trot out Tony Zinni for example, while the Republicans pitched Tommy Franks into the fray.

It doesn't impress me, frankly, for a number of reasons.

First, being a general is no guarantee of competence in strategic affairs. Or in military affairs, actually. Quite a lot of talented people become generals, of course, but, unfortunately, quite a lot of...uh...less talented people do, too.

It has always been that way. George McClellan was, by all accounts, the very model of a modern major general on paper. Except that...he wouldn't fight. Or Mark Clark, who would fight, but who lost more people at Anzio and Monte Cassino than Doug MacArthur did in the entire Island-Hopping Campaign. Or Merrill McPeak, a man so petty and arrogant that the entire Department of the Air Force heaved a massive sigh of relief when he retired as COSAF. And the less said about William Westmoreland, the better.

In war, naturally, general officer competence is much more easily divined. It becomes obvious who the losers are. And Lloyd Fredendall gets replaced by George Patton. Simple—albeit a bit rough on the troops. But in peacetime, while there are still good and bad generals, we don't really have any way for telling which is which.

And, aside from varying levels of personal competence, the fact is that, even among competent generals, comprehensive knowledge of national strategy just isn't their bag.

B.H. Liddel Hart defined two distinct spheres of strategy over 70 years ago. There is strategy as a military art, which is how to use tactics to win battles in such a way as to eventually destroy an enemy's ability to resist. Then there is what Hart called "Grand Strategy". That is not a military art, but a political one. It is the definition of national goals and purposes, the shaping of the political outcomes of conflict, and the building of an adequate post-conflict regime of international relations.

Generals are supposed to know how to apply strategy to warfare, but, grand strategy is not the business of the general. Nor is it something the general is schooled in as part of his professional responsibilities. Grand strategy is the business of the general's political overlords.

So, when Tommy Franks or Wesley Clark steps up to the podium, I don't believe we are listening to a trained master in Grand Strategy. At the point when the general opines about our national objectives and grand strategy, he becomes no more of an expert than any other well-read, experienced adult who is interested in politics and international relations. What he says then becomes interesting and compelling for its content alone, and not from some respect for the general's expertise.

If I ask a general, "How will you defeat the Kaplokistani Army?" I expect to hear an authoritative response. If I ask, "How should we reconstruct the government of Kaplokistan after your victory, and what should be the nature of our relations with it?" I expect to hear an opinion, which may or may not be sound and well-informed.

Also, if generals were masters of Grand Strategy, wouldn't they tend to agree on it?

Look at it this way. Let's say you got Tommy Franks, Norm Schwartzkopf, Wes Clark, and Tony Zinni together in a room. Then you told them, "I want you you to draw up a plan for defeating the Kaplokistani Army. Here is their order of battle and their current and probable future deployments. Knock yourself out." When they were done, you probably wouldn't be able to slip a piece of paper into the differences in their four plans.

(Well, except for Tony Zinni's, whose plan would probably be to let the Army supply his Marines with fuel and weapons as needed, then come along behind him with brooms to sweep up his troops' spent brass. Marines. Sheesh!)

There's a reason for that. Military Strategy is their deal. It's what they've trained for all their adult lives. Faced with a professional problem in that realm, they would all produce very similar professional results.

But, when you ask those same fellows about Iraq, or the Palestinian problem, they each have quite different answers. That should be a blinding light that illuminates the proposition that they are speaking on something outside their professional competence, and doing so with no more authority than any other person who is well-informed on such matters.

There probably is no real science of Grand Strategy, because there are few hard and fast rules for determining which grand strategies are most appropriate. Grand strategy is most often a matter of ideology, rather than natural law. Grand Strategy is, therefore, a political exercise, not a military one, and the views that various generals might have on it are shaped by their political, philosophical, and ideological leanings.

Indeed, that is the very reason why generals might be less capable of speaking to those things authoritatively than an equally competent civilian. The general designs military strategies that implement the grand strategy of their superiors. They follow orders. They are not encouraged to expound upon their grand strategic ideas—assuming they have any in the first place—but rather to subordinate them to the ideas of their superiors. Nor, it should also be noted, does the general look kindly on subordinates who question him or attempt to debate him about his ideas. That is simply not an environment in which free or comprehensive thinking on grand strategy is encouraged.

Civilians, on the other hand, face no such constraints. They are free to develop their own ideas about grand strategies, speak and write about them, and debate them publicly. If they are public officials, they must face criticism from all levels of society. In fact, every presidential election is, in no small part, a debate and referendum on the grand strategy envisioned by the candidates: What is America's proper place in the world? How do we interact with our foes and allies? When do we act unilaterally? When do we support multinational action? We hash out these grand strategic concepts every for years.

So, whenever you see a general on CNN or FOXNews, keep in mind that their pronouncements on grand strategy should not be judged on the basis of how many stars they wore on their shoulders. Generals—retired ones, at any rate—are free to pop off on anything they like, of course, but I think it's a mistake to assume that they speak with authority on matters of Grand Strategy.
 
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Civilians, on the other hand, face no such constraints. They are free to develop their own ideas about grand strategies, speak and write about them, and debate them publicly.

so you have no objection, then, to Senators and Congressmen from the Democratic Party publicly debating the merits of the President’s surge strategy?
 
Written By: Francis
URL: http://
so you have no objection, then, to Senators and Congressmen from the Democratic Party publicly debating the merits of the President’s surge strategy?
Debating and hamstringing are two different things. Debating and putting forth resolutions that serve no purpose other than demoralizing the administration and our troops, while emboldening our enemies are different things.

Dale,

It is funny, I was just reading Glenn Greenwald trot out a general and was thinking the exact same thing, especially that they disagree and therefore give us no more guidance than anyone else. Good job.
 
Written By: Lance
URL: www.asecondhandconjecture.com
so you have no objection, then, to Senators and Congressmen from the Democratic Party publicly debating the merits of the President’s surge strategy?
I never have before, so I don’t know why I would now. We’ve debated the surge strategy ourselves here, and I don’t think any of us are totally sold on it.

But, of course, the surge is not a matter of grand strategy in any case. It is straightforward military strategy, and can be evaluated on a professional military basis.

I do have a few caveats, though.

Congress’ place is not to debate the president’s strategy, in the main. Congress starts wars, and can force a president to end them, or can impeach a president for fighting one incompetently, but there is a reason the president is the sole commander in chief.

You cannot have a 535-man committee overseeing the military objectives of any war. That’s why the Constitution specifically invests the president specifically with command of the armed forces.

Once Congress authorizes the use of military force, they turn responsibility over using that force to the president. They can, I think, debate all they want about how the president fights the war. As a result of that debate, they can force the war to end. They can toss the president out of office. But oversight of operations seems to me to be beyond their purview.

I think, if I were president, and were authorized to go to war, if a situation came up in which Congress tried to force me to undertake or stop a particular military operation, I would simply ignore them if I felt strongly enough about it. And I think the Supreme Court would back me up on that on clear separation of powers principles. The Congress has no constitutional command authority whatsoever, so I think that trying to override specific presidential command decisions would be a unconstitutional overreach that the Court would invalidate.
 
Written By: Dale Franks
URL: http://www.qando.net
George McClellan was, by all accounts, the very model of a modern major general on paper.
He actually did an excellent job of creating the Army of the Potomac. He just couldn’t use it with any effectiveness.
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
I read Tommy Franks biography, and it seems like Centcom’s generals had to do a huge amount of diplomacy as well as fight the actual wars. Thus you might get a situation where Zinni is the best diplomat, Franks the best coventional war-fighter, and what not. Not to mention the domestic politics they end up doing as well...
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
One of the constant, low-grade irritations I’ve felt for the last couple of years has been...generals...Actually, it’s not the generals, per se that irritate me. It has been how both the pro-and anti-Iraq war people tend to trot out generals, in order to make what are essentially arguments from authority.
I have a similar pet peeve about the "career CIA agent" who is frequently found on moonbat websites speaking authoritatively about how, for example, US support for Israel is the root cause of al Qaeda terrorism.

When I am able to find a bio on one of these experts it usually turns out that he was a specialist on something like Vietnam for a few years before leaving the agency in the 1960’s.
 
Written By: Aldo
URL: http://
I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. The best advice is evaluate the content of what they say, not the number of stars on their shoulders.

In WWII, Eisenhower, Marshall and perhaps MacArthur had some grand strategic chops. The best grand strategist hands down was Churchill who had some infantry experience as a soldier in WWI and was also First Lord of the Admiralty (where his Gallipoli caper was, at best, controversial).

While he was not 100% correct, he was correct enough to team with the US and best the wiley but crazy Hitler, and the tactically excellent but strategically hidebound Japanese.

 
Written By: vnjagvet
URL: http://www.yargb.blogspot.com
"Churchill who had some infantry experience as a soldier in WWI"

Actually, he left the army in 1899, was first elected to Parliament in 1900, was about 40 when WWI began.

http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page134.asp

"(where his Gallipoli caper was, at best, controversial)."

An excellent idea whose execution was criminal.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://

 
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